Separated by the 2016 Presidential election, Hacksaw Ridge’s release on November 4 and Billy Lynn’s on November 11 posit these films as radically polarized polemical statements on American militarism and state-sanctioned murder.
In the Red State corner, Gibson’s savage World War II combat film Hacksaw Ridge recreates the multiple life-saving heroics of the pacifist 77th Infantry medic Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) at the battle of Okinawa in 1945, while poeticizing and beautifying martial slaughter.
In the Blue State corner, Lee’s queasy Iraq War-era drama (set mostly in Red State Texas) inhabits the consciousness of a PTSD-dazed Army Specialist (Joe Alwyn) paraded as a hero, but degraded as a man, on a victory tour that’s brought him to the Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving 2004 game.
Hacksaw Ridge co-opts Doss’s story to aestheticize mass-bloodletting on screen for mass entertainment and sell it as a necessary condition of American self-preservation; the Japanese soldiers in the film are mostly faceless cannon fodder. Billy Lynn shows the dehumanizing horror of a single incident involving the killings of an America and an Iraqi.
The Iraqi is a stranger to the audience, but his death falls like a sledgehammer blow – no less so than that of the American, with whom we have become intimate.
As the director of Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ, and Apocalypto, and as the star of Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot, Gibson has celebrated the efforts of his communally-minded heroes, Jesus included, to resist imperialism while bathing them in gore. When Doss, faced with a court martial, is questioned why he enlisted but doesn’t want to bear arms, he says he took the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as a personal affront on him as an American.
Doss’s patriotism established, Gibson accordingly builds the film’s most stirring sequences around the young Virginian’s strenuous efforts to save GI after GI under fire at Okinawa. However, the film’s meticulous, dirge-like depiction of carnage is an end in itself, designed less to justify America’s war on Japan’s military statism than to evince sadistic pleasure.
Unlike Samuel Peckinpah’s critique in The Wild Bunch of “the myth of regenerative violence,” the subject of Richard Slotkin’s books, Hacksaw Ridge is an ideological straight-shooter, this season’s The Green Berets. Its message isn’t “turn the other cheek,” but dulce et decorum est pro patria. The nine-year-old gunslinger in me would have found it thrilling, but he didn’t know any better.
Gibson’s war on the Japs is as virtual as Billy Lynn’s experience of Texas between his tours in Iraq. Cecil B. DeMille would have salivated over Lee’s staging of the all-singing, all-dancing, all-vulgarizing half-time extravaganza at the Cowboys’ stadium, where Billy and his comrades are moved around like dumb extras.
Featuring Destiny’s Child, the show is an orgy of debased Americana, in which preening peacock majorettes and Playboy-perfect cheerleaders sashay along with Beyoncé’s behind. It calls to mind the Bunnies’ show in Apocalypse Now, with which Billy Lynn constantly engages.
Cinematographer John Toll photographed Billy Lynn at 120 frames per second to hyperrealize Billy’s blitzing, sensuous moment by sensuous moment. The film’s defining irony is that the quotidian reality of his days in Iraq, where he proves a capable soldier under the watchful eye of his mentoring sergeant (Vin Diesel), is scarcely less stressful than the over-produced insanity he’s subjected to stateside.
Outside their comfort zone in the stadium, Billy and the seven fellow members of Bravo Squad with whom he’s been corralled into propagandizing the war effort are rabbits in spotlights. Shaking down a Saddam supporter and swapping gunfire with insurgents, as they’re seen doing in flashbacks under the cool command of their other sergeant (Garrett Hedlund), make for an easier gig than being shuffled along by their grasping victory tour manager (Chris Tucker) and introduced to slimy businessmen like the Cowboys’ owner (Steve Martin) and a local fracker (Tim Blake Nelson).
The story’s anti-war conscience is provided by Billy’s youngest sister Kathryn, a recovering car crash victim whose livid scars externalize the anguish she suffers when he’s in Iraq. In contrast to the gleaming Christian cheerleader (Makenzie Leigh), who promises Billy love and sex because he’s a hero, Kathryn is haggard, unkempt, and blunt.
Played by Kristen Stewart – as only she can play such a battered vessel of truth – Kathryn tells Billy he’s too messed up to return to Iraq. Should he stay or should he go? becomes the crux of the movie. Never mind the technical innovations, Stewart and the affecting newcomer Alwyn are the two main reasons why Billy Lynn deserves our votes this week.
Hacksaw Ridge is in theaters. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk opens on November 11.